Saturday, November 17, 2012

Ra'anan Alexandrowicz's THE LAW IN THESE PARTS tracks Israel's 44 years of military law in the Occupied Territories

After raving last month about the extraordinarily moving narrative film set in Israel/Palestine, The Other Son, I'm doing it again -- about an equally worthwhile Israeli documentary that is dry and pointed yet every bit as meaningful and important as Lorraine Levy's emotional roller coaster. THE LAW IN THESE PARTS (Shilton Ha Chok), written and directed by Ra'anan Alexandrowicz, is a film I would not have missed in any case, because Mr. Alexandrovicz (pictured below), nearly a decade ago gave us one of the most remarkable movies I have ever seen, one that has stayed with me over time (and several viewings), James Journey to Jerusalem. (If you have never seen this little knockout narrative that tackles faith, immigrants, economics and Israel today -- for film's sake, stick it on your must-see list.)

The Law in These Parts (what a funny, ironic, movie-loving title so redolent of "the old west") seems, on its surface, simplicity itself: Alexandrovicz wants to explore the law that applies to non-Israelis who live in the Occupied Territories of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. And after all the films we've now seen that zero in on the Occupied Territories with personal stories and much screaming and yelling, what a fine idea it is to concentrate on the law -- that object seemingly above the fray and yet the very thing from which justice, or something less, must derive.

To this end Alexandrovicz gathers together and interviews/films the men -- all ex-military and all retired now: two judges, a legal adviser, a Deputy Military Advocate General, ex-Head of the Israel Military International Law Branch, and ex-President of the Supreme Court -- who all, so far as anything resembling genuine justice is concerned, proceed to hang themselves by their own petard.

How in the world did the filmmaker get these guys to work with him? Given his history -- his other documentaries and the remarkable James' Journey... -- his stance on his own country's treatment of Palestinians is rather clear. Perhaps, once one ex-military man agreed, the others followed, thinking of course that they would be able to convince the audience of their righteous knowledge, abilities and deeds. At times, their sense of self-worth and utter self-righteousness seem either Yaweh-blessed or appalling, depending on your viewpoint.

Interviewing a half-dozen of these elderly fellows (no women, of course), the filmmaker asks them relatively simple questions about the law -- which, it appears, has changed and "broadened" over the years and which, in any case, applies only to the Arabs living in these territories, not the Israelis. This may put you in mind of the USA's own "separate-but-unequal" Jim Crow laws of the last century in our southern states.

When the topic turns to torture, you will again be reminded of the USA in Iraq and elsewhere around the globe (see Rendition, for example), as these former justices slip and slime their way out of facing almost anything head-on. Along the way, Alexandrovicz asks one of the men something to the effect of, "Would Israelis live under the conditions that occupied endure?"  "That's theoretical, isn't it?" comes the non-reply.

Worst of all is hearing these men utterly contradict international law -- as they sleaze their way of out just about everything -- from the difference between "occupied" and "held" territories to a woman prisoner tried for giving food to men in need. "This is universal human behavior," insists her defense attorney. "These terrorist are not human beings, " counters the prosecution, taking us immediately back to the Nazi Germany view of Jews.

This is shocking stuff, made all the more so by Alexandrovicz's refusal to raise his voice or grow at all out-of-sorts with the attitude of these big boys. At times, as they stare at the camera, their smar-my, self- righteous look seems to say, "You assholes just don't get it." But we do get it. And we are not fooled nor impressed by Alexander Ramatii (above), former Lieutenant Colonel and legal adviser, recalling how his came up with the idea of Mahwat or "dead" land as an excuse for the Israeli's settling in the occupied  territories.

Simultaneously with the interviews and often connecting them, the filmmaker uses historical footage of the times under discussion, as above and below, without narrative additions. No need, as these pictures are worth the proverbial thousands of words. Alexandro-vicz also goes out of his way to let us know that he understands that, while the documentary form searches for "truth," this is not always so easy a task. And so the footage of these interviews that remains on the cutting room floor (or whatever heaven or hell to which edited video footage is consigned) may be making that truth less easy to ascertain. Fine, but what we see here is probably as close to that truth as we're going to come for some time.

The Law in These Parts, 101 minutes, from The Cinema Guild, opened up this past Wednesday, November 14, for its two-week run at New York's Film Forum. Elsewhere? Nothing scheduled as yet, so far as I know. Special note: the filmmaker, Ra'anan Alexandrowicz, will be making a personal appearance at Film Forum today, Saturday, November 17, at the 6pm screening, and tomorrow, Sunday, November 18, at the 3:15 screening.

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